February 16, 2009

Saner heads

His beak can hold more than his belly can.Several years ago I judged a band competition in Ontario and was faced with a situation that most adjudicators dread. In fact, it was the first contest in which I was on ensemble, having gone through the accreditation process the previous spring.

It was the Grade 1 competition, which consisted of three bands. All of the bands played well. It was a medley event, and Ontario rules state that bands must submit two selections, and draw at the line with the ensemble judge present for the one they should play.

One of the bands came to the line, clearly wanting to get on with it because it was a scorching day. The pipe-major reached into the bag, and pulled out the #1 chip. In Ontario, the content of the selections is printed on each score sheet, the tunes being provided by the band with its entry. But because of a database glitch, the selections were reversed on the score sheet for each band, so the one that the band thought is #1 was printed as #2, however bands were made aware of the issue. So, the content of the #1 selection was really printed on the score sheet as the #2 entry. In essence, a band drawing #1 would have to play #2.

As the ensemble judge, I reminded each pipe-major at the line of that discrepancy. But this one band’s pipe-major was clearly in a hurry, and turned to start his group without realizing the reversal and that I was pointing out the other medley on the score sheet. Strictly speaking, the band played the wrong selection and thus a rule was broken . . . sort of.

Immediately after the band played, the judges got together, and we discovered that we all had noticed the band’s “error.” What to do?

We quickly agreed that we would go ahead and judge the entire contest as we would if there were no problem. We also agreed that, after that, we would alert the head of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario about what occurred, since, ultimately, any penalty would be an Executive decision.

As judges, we made a recommendation to the President, which was to tell all of the bands what had happened, and allow the competitors to decide what they’d prefer to do. If the band at fault wanted to give up its prize, then they could do that; if the other two bands preferred not to move up a place for such a shallow reason (a move that we thought was likely), then that was fine, too. But it had the potential to be an ungodly embarrassment for everyone involved. Was it really worth it?

To my surprise at the time, the PPBSO president decided not to do anything. He was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, feeling that, even though a rule was broken, it made little sense to us to crack down on it. It just wasn’t worth the certain ill will. The band that made the mistake didn’t appear to do it intentionally. The PPBSO was also at least partly to blame because of the database problem, swapping the medleys on the score sheets.

I’m reminded of that situation because of the current issue with the RSPBA’s “international” judges being suspended. Just like any organization, the RSPBA has a right to enforce its rules strictly. If the rule is that sample score sheets must be provided from a judge’s home association, then so be it.

But, like the situation I described above, is it worth it? Ultimately, does it make sense to doggedly follow a rule that was broken due to any number of faults – chief among them, perhaps, resting with the association itself? Yes, an organization’s role is to enforce the rules, but leadership’s role is to determine when exceptions are warranted.

Some will no doubt feel that the band should have been disqualified, just as some will think that the RSPBA did the right thing. But I learned from that awkward circumstance at that competition that, every so often, punishing people for breaking a rule can in the broader scheme of things do more harm than good.

Sometimes, those who suffer the most when rules are rigidly enforced are the competitors and the art, and it’s better to quietly sort things out behind the scenes and just get on with it for the good of all concerned.

September 01, 2008


Make up your mind!I believe that the RSPBA and the PPBSO are the only two associations that require bands to do the pipes down / pipes up drill at the starting line. The Scottish association has done it forever, while the Ontario one introduced it in the 1990s, dropped it for a few years, then brought it back again maybe seven years ago. The maneuvre is a hold-over from the military roots of pipe bands, and the commands from the pipe-major – who rarely has any military background – are supposed to go something like this:

– Band: atten . . . shun!
– Band: pipes ready! [pipers gather up chanter and blowstick; drummers put their sticks under their armpit]
– Band: pipes down! [pipers put instrument in the crook of their left elbow; drummers turn drums to the side; both keep their right hands on their instrument]
– Hup! [right arms down to the side]
– Band: at ease! Stand easy! [why this is said twice I don’t know, but players move their left foot out and are supposed to stand in a more relaxed way, with their right arms behind their back]

The pipe-major then talks with the steward and/or ensemble judge for maybe 15 seconds, then turns to the band and says:

– Band: atten . . . shun! [players move their left foot back in, their right arm to their side, and stick their chest out]
– Band: ready! [players put their instruments to the front]
– Hup! [pipes moved to shoulder, drums to the front, right arm remaining on the instrument]
– Hup! [players put their right arm to their side]
– Band: get ready! [pipers carefully bring their chanter down; drummers’ sticks in playing position]

Essentially, when all of this finally concludes the band is back to what it looked like when they arrived to the line, provided a poorly maintained tenor drone-top hasn’t slipped off its tuning pin, or a chanter reed hasn’t fallen in, or a stock hasn’t come loose from the bag.

(There’s a famous story of a pipe-major of a Grade 1 Ontario band who, at the band’s first competition in Scotland, was unaware of the RSPBA’s pipes down/up rule, arrived at the line with his band ready to play, only to have the steward kindly remind him, “Pipes down, pipe-major.” A bit rattled, he followed the steward’s direction and had his pipers put their instruments down, only to be told by the steward, “Pipes up, pipe-major.” Thoroughly confused, the pipe-major said, “Would you make up your %&^&ing mind?!”)

I actually clocked that pipes down/up drill a few times this summer, and it takes anywhere from 40 to 190 seconds. During that time, the judges are pretty much standing their doing nothing, the crowd is daydreaming, and, most significant of all, the instruments are going flat.

In a 20-band competition, with each pipes up / ready / down / hup / pipes up, etc. routine lasting an average of, say, one-minute, all of that adds 20 minutes to the event.

I’m not sure what the reason for the drill is, but I gather it’s to make bands look regimented and smart. But I have never known a crowd to be wowed by it, a band judge to let it sway their opinion, or a band to be anything but miffed that they have to jostle around instruments that they just spent an hour fine-tuning.

In this age when march-pasts and massed bands push larger competitions into the night and associations scramble to compile results in time, it makes little sense to add the extra time to competitions for virtually no return.

Time to scrap this antiquated tradition.

June 29, 2008

Sound decisions

A weighty subjectThe, ahem, peculiar circumstances of the Grade 1 contest at the British Championships bring to mind a number of thoughts. I remember competing at Markinch a few decades ago when a piper in my band had a stock come loose from his bag. At the attack there was no response from his pipes, so he made a quick right turn before crossing the line, never making a sound. There were only two competitors, and the other band was clearly well behind. Coincidentally, Peter Snadden was a piping judge that day, too, and he allegedly had us first but then was told to change his mark. We weren’t disqualified, as I recall, but we were second, or last, and the whole thing was a bit of a fiasco.

I don’t know the full details of what happened to Field Marshal Montgomery yesterday, but I do think this: a judge should not on his or her own decide to DQ a band, which is essentially what Tony Sloan did. My feeling is that a judge must only go by what is heard, not what is seen. If a judge sees a piper hitch up his/her bag then that alone isn’t cause for criticism. But if the hitching causes the tone to drop or a cut-out to be audible, then it impacts the sound negatively and the judge should act as he or she sees fit.

But, assuming Richard Parkes did not even start his drones, how could his ducking out affect the band’s sound? If Snadden put them first, then clearly the sound of their pipe corps rated highly, so a true last in piping – based strictly on sound – is undeserved. Fourth? Okay. Seventh? Maybe. But last? Can’t fathom it.

A few years ago I judged a championship Grade 1 contest in Ontario. As the ensemble judge, I witnessed all of the bands draw for the selection that they would play. The last band on picked their number-one medley, but then proceeded to play the other selection. I and the other two piping judges recognized the error immediately.

We quickly discussed it, and then decided that we would mark the band according to what we heard, and then pass it to the association’s Executive and Music Board representatives to decide what to do. It wasn’t our place as judges to do anything but assess what we heard the band play, whether it was the selection they drew or not.

The RSPBA clearly did not disqualify FMM, but nonetheless allowed Sloan’s mark to stand. The band finished sixth, and still would not have won had Sloan placed them first. However, that sixth could well come in to play in a major way at the end of the year when the Champion of Champions tables are tabulated.

Perhaps Sloan indeed called it like he heard it. He and Snadden of course are reputable and fair judges, and there’s no reason to think that either did anything but try to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, none of the judges at the British appeared to notice (based on the results that the RSPBA posted) that the Vale played the wrong stuff, and, quite rightly, simply judged the band only based on what they heard, and correctly left it to the administration to deal with matters of rules.

So far this year there have been a number of new dilemmas presented to judges at pipe band contests: FMM, the Vale and the Toronto Police. In each, it is a reminder to judges that they are not there to do anything but assess what they hear, and then leave the interpretation of the the rules to the administers.


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